The Misunderstood Marquess

John Sholto Douglas, ninth Marquess of Queensberry, sponsor of the rules of boxing, is infamous as
the philistine brute who terrorised his family and destroyed the artist and genius Oscar Wilde.

A closer look is appropriate.

Born in 1844, Queensberry was 14 when his father made a single huge and losing bet, and shot himself.

At school in Portsmouth, and afterwards in the Royal Navy, Douglas excelled at sport. He was a strong
swimmer. He once represented Worcestershire at cricket, playing in the same XI as W.G. Grace, who
top scored. Douglas got a duck.

As a jockey he rode several winners but was more noted for his cheerfulness and courage than his
ability. He once fell when leading 36 horses over the Punchestown fences, then lay motionless as the
field stepped around him.

He relished all forms of boxing, including bare knuckle, often seeking out impromptu bouts with
strangers. He didn’t write the Queensberry Rules, but promoted and endorsed them. Their effect was
to civilise an often savage sport.

The emphasis was placed on skill, speed, and on winning within the rules, not simply by any means.
Gloves and an impartial referee were made mandatory and fights were divided into a finite number of
rounds, introducing the concept of a competitor winning on points.

Mr Douglas promoted winning within the rules in boxing.

In 1865, when Douglas was 21, his younger brother, Francis, was killed while descending from the
summit of the Matterhorn. Three others died with him. The expedition had been led by Edward
Whymper, who survived. Queensberry spent a day and a night on the mountain, searching for a body.

He took his seat in the House of Lords in 1872, sitting as a Liberal. He was considered progressive,
even radical, advocating votes for women and simpler divorce laws.

Douglas had always been sceptical about conventional religion. His experience in the Swiss alps didn’t
encourage him to believe in the God he heard talked about in church on Sundays. Agnostics of the
time were euphemistically referred to as ‘free thinkers’ and such people, whilst welcome in some
environments, were, in the Houses of Parliament, dismissed as cranks. When his attempts to provoke
a debate proved fruitless Queensberry raised the stakes.

Asked to take an oath of allegiance he requested the right to ‘affirm’ on the grounds that his word
should be enough. He was refused. The Marquess insisted, unwittingly putting himself in decent
company. Another who found it impossible to place his hand on a book and tell an ordinary lie was Sir
Thomas More.

Douglas was barred from sitting. It was an early end to a career.

He wrote poetry instead. A theme was what he called ‘perfect love’. He believed we were responsible
for the souls of those we brought into the world.

Maybe thy happiest time was when
Blessed with a giant frame, and savage strength,
Free as the untamed beast, thou roamest the earth…
They progeny, a glory to thine eye,
Were all thou could’st desire in lustiness.

In the simplicity of a sporting environment, Queensberry remained relaxed and happy. Domestic life
defeated him. He had expected his family, especially the boys, to grow up and be like him. His job was
to supply the means for food, shelter and education, thus allowing the influences that had impacted
on him to take effect. When this went wrong he had no resources to address the problem.

Alfred, his youngest son, known as Bosie, was acquainted with the ‘aesthete and dandy’ Oscar Wilde.
It was the time of private vice and public virtue, when contradictory views found effortless
co-existence. Homosexuality was condemned in the most colourful and biblical manner from the pulpit,
from the House of Commons, and by Fleet Street editors, but generously tolerated in all other respects.
Queensberry was incapable of double standards himself, and didn’t understand them in others…

‘Aesthete and dandy’, Oscar Wilde

Bosie and Oscar were lunching at the Cafe Royal when the father walked in. He was invited to join
them, and did so reluctantly. Wilde was on form and the Marquess was charmed. There was an
agreement that all should meet again. This was 1892. Queensberry had already warned his son about
Wilde’s reputation but then wrote to Bosie contradicting his earlier advice, saying he approved of the

In 1893 Bosie was sent down from Oxford. The details of his misdemeanour were kept secret but the
college confided in Queensberry. Bosie had a reputation for taking things to extremes, for example by
hiring rent boys.

The next year Queensberry’s eldest son, Francis, named after his late brother, died, at 27, of a shotgun
wound to the head, whilst on a hunting party. Lord Rosebery, then prime minister, had employed
Francis and the two had had an affair. Possibly it was the other way round. The death was informally
assumed to be suicide or murder, and was recorded as an accident.

Douglas was now 50. Politically his views had found no traction, and he was dismissed by those that
mattered as an eccentric fool. One son was dead, another, Percy, was a reckless gambler and alcoholic,
and Bosie was the third. He had become impotent; a second, unconsummated marriage had been

Without an appointment he visited Wilde in Chelsea, accompanied by a minder, an ex-boxer. He
demanded that all contact with his son be broken off and threatened to shoot Wilde dead if it wasn’t.
Wilde ignored him, Bosie mocked him. The drunken Percy sided with Wilde. A chance meeting led to
public fisticuffs with the father. The scandal sheet Police News was happy to imagine the event…

Queensberry left a card at Wilde’s club with the handwritten, mis-spelled message ‘posing somdomite’.
Earlier he had said to Wilde, ‘I don’t say you are it, but you look it, which is just as bad’. Wilde sued for
criminal libel and Queensberry was arrested. A guilty verdict would have seen him sent to prison.
Douglas always referred to the card as ‘the booby trap’.

He hired Edward Carson to represent him. Carson, a future attorney-general in Asquith’s government,
had been a contemporary of Wilde at Trinity College, Dublin. Oscar remarked that he was sure Carson
would pursue the case ‘with all the added bitterness of an old friend’.

Finally Queensberry had found an opponent more impulsive and reckless than himself, and one whom
the establishment hated more than it did him. The cross examination was ruthless, Wilde withdrew the
allegations and was forced by the court to admit that publication had been ‘for the public benefit’.
Notes from the trial were sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Lord Desart, the DPP, read the papers carefully, then asked the time of the last boat from Dover to
Calais, delaying signing the arrest warrant until it had left. That sailing contained a quantity of single
and middle aged men who had suddenly felt a spell in France might be prudent. Wilde wasn’t among

Carson, later to be knighted and made a Baron, was offered the prosecution brief and refused it. When
that trial resulted in a hung jury he made representations for Wilde not to be subjected to a third
ordeal. The establishment, keen to be seen to be tough and still terrified of revelations about
Rosebery’s private life, paid no attention. Wilde was put to hard labour for 2 years.

Released from gaol in 1897, Oscar died in Paris in November, 1900. Queensberry himself had died,
aged 56, 10 months earlier. Percy and Bosie, visiting France, were described by Wilde in a letter as
being ‘in deepest mourning and the highest spirits’.

Queensberry, having been accused of an offence, was, naturally, fully entitled to defend himself with
all the means at his disposal. His provocation of Wilde, which had included sending a ‘bouquet’ of
vegetables to the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest, could be justified on the grounds of
an understandable antipathy to effete male behaviour, and a desire to save his third son from the fate
of the first. But when Wilde was released on bail between the trials Douglas hired a gang of thugs to
pursue him through the streets, threatening any hotelier who offered to accommodate him, and it was
Douglas’s vindictive demand for costs that, a year later, caused Oscar to be taken out of prison for a
day and made a public bankrupt.

Douglas had had his victory, but he needed more. In getting it he paid no heed to The Queensberry
which had been specifically designed to establish a winner without bringing dishonour,
humiliation or serious injury to the defeated.

It can be argued that disappointment, grief and trauma played a significant role in these spiteful actions,
on which his reputation is now based, and that they were not characteristic of his life.